The Quare Fellow is Brendan Behan's first play, first produced in 1954.
The title is taken from a Hiberno-English pronunciation of queer, meaning 'strange' or 'unusual'. In context, the word lacks the denotation of homosexuality it holds today. The play does feature a gay character, but he is referred to as The Other Fellow.
The play is set in Mountjoy Prison, Dublin. The anti-hero of the play, The Quare Fellow himself, is never seen or heard. However, he is the pivot around whom Brendan Behan's debut is constructed. He is a man condemned to death the following day, for an unmentioned crime. Whatever it is, it revolts his fellow inmates far less than that of The Other Fellow, a very camp, almost Wildean, gay man.
There are three generations of prisoners in Mountjoy including boisterous youngsters who can irritate both other inmates and the audience and the weary old lags Neighbour and "methylated martyr" Dunlavin.
The first act is played out in the cramped area outside five cells and is comedic, sometimes rather like an Irish episode of Porridge. After the interval, the pace slows considerably and the play becomes much darker, as the time for the execution approaches. The focus moves to the exercise yard and much more worryingly, to the detail that is digging the grave for the soon to be executed Quare Fellow.
The taking of a man's life is examined from many different angles: his fellow prisoners of all hues, the great and the good and the prison officers.
The play is a grimly realistic portrait of prison life in Ireland in the 1950s, and a reminder of the days in which homosexuality was illegal and the death penalty common. The play is based on Behan's own prison experiences, and highlights the barbarity of capital punishment, then in use in Ireland. The play also attacks the false piety in attitudes to sex, politics and religion.
The play was offered to Dublin's Abbey Theatre, but turned down. It premièred at the Pike Theatre Club, Herbert Lane, Dublin on November 19, 1954 to critical success. In May 1956, The Quare Fellow had its London première at Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. On 24 July 1956, it transferred to the Comedy Theatre, London. In September 1956 the Abbey Theatre finally performed The Quare Fellow. It had such success that the artistic director of the Abbey Theatre, Ria Mooney, had to push the next play back to allow The Quare Fellow to run for six weeks. Its first New York performance was on 27 November 1958 at the Circle in the Square Theatre
In 1962 the play was adapted for the screen by Arthur Dreifuss and starred Patrick McGoohan, Sylvia Syms and Walter Macken. Although the film received some favourable reviews, it is not regarded as a faithful adaptation of the play.
The Auld Triangle:
"The Auld Triangle", a song from the opening of the play, has become an Irish music standard and is known by many who are unaware of its link to The Quare Fellow. Famous versions of the song were performed by Ronnie Drew and Luke Kelly. A version appears on the album Red Roses for Me, by The Pogues. Dropkick Murphys also covered the song on The Warrior's Code.